Question of the Week: How Can I Pitch Allowing Limited Commerce in Residential Areas?


It’s Friday morning at Strong Towns, and that means it’s time for the Strong Towns Knowledge Base question of the week! Our Knowledge Base, at help.strongtowns.org, is where you can go to ask, answer, and get answered your pressing questions about how to convert the principles of strong places we discuss here into real action in your own community.

The Knowledge Base is a crowd-sourced project. The Strong Towns staff will try to chime in as we can and answer questions, especially frequently-asked questions, but you don’t have to wait for us. Head on over and add your comments, suggestions, critiques, original questions of your own, whatever you’ve got!

This week’s question:

How do I pitch the idea of rezoning residential neighborhoods to allow limited commerce to my city council?

And here’s our stab at an answer. If you want to add to it or respond to it, here’s a link to the question on the Knowledge Base where you can do so. If you’re part of our Slack community, you can also ask Knowledge Base questions at channel #knowledge_base.


A lot of zoning codes simply ban commercial land uses in residential neighborhoods with a broad brush, rather than acknowledging the huge differences among types of businesses in space requirements, traffic, and other impacts on neighbors. A rule intended to prevent a loud nightclub or a large chain restaurant from setting up shop in a neighborhood might also be preventing businesses from opening that would not only be unobtrusive neighbors but pleasant and useful ones.

Want to change this? There are a lot of good reasons to:

• A mix of land uses—particularly homes and businesses—is a crucial component in walkability, which has health, environmental, and economic benefits: no matter how nice your sidewalks and street trees are, you need things to walk to. Yet neighborhoods that offer this are scarce—here's urban scholar Daniel Kay Hertz making the case that this denies choices to many Americans.

• Studies show profound latent demand in America for walkable urban neighborhoods (again, allowing some local businesses is an essential part of walkability). One of the most compelling examples is a 2005 study by Jonathan Levine which found that in cities such as Atlanta with a stark shortage of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, up to half of the people who expressed a strong preference for such a neighborhood were nonetheless not living in one. Most likely they were unable to find a home in such a place within their price range—the "shortage of cities" drives up the price of housing in walkable areas (Redfin found that one point of Walk Score was worth about $3,000 in home value).

• Mixed-use development is good for a city's tax base. Geoanalytics firm Urban3 has demonstrated this convincingly in dozens if not hundreds of cities: here's a classic article about it by Urban3 principal Joe Minicozzi. Urban3's tax-value analysis also demonstrates that walkable development patterns correlate with high value per acre.

Here are some policy steps you might suggest to local leaders who are hesitant to allow commercial uses to intersperse within residential areas:

A neighborhood grocer (Photo: Google Maps)

• Legalizing live-work arrangements is a good low-risk experiment. Certain types of home-based businesses—a photographer's studio, a hair salon, a coffee shop—can blend in very easily in a residential area and begin to set a precedent that mixed use can be unobtrusive and pleasant.

This is also often the cheapest way for an aspiring entrepreneur to actually get started, because they don't have to rent a totally separate space, so you can pitch it as an economic-development strategy.

Furthermore, from the city's perspective, live-work can mollify critics of the proposal who worry about disruptive impacts on neighbors, for three key reasons:

- The business owners, in this case, are also residents and therefore have skin in the game when it comes to not creating negative impacts (noise, congestion, litter, crime) on the surrounding neighborhood.

- Businesses will inherently be confined to those that can operate on a residential property. No big stores.

- The city can choose a trial neighborhood or two: maybe there's a historic one that already has some mixed use "grandfathered in" where it's technically illegal now.

• Focus on the "missing middle": Many cities are talking about "missing middle" housing these days—everything from duplexes and ADUs up to small apartment buildings. Point out that there is a similar "missing middle" for commercial spaces, as economic-development expert Kevin Klinkenberg does here. Too often, a barrier to the growth of small, locally-owned businesses is a lack of small, affordable commercial space. Allowing a corner store in the neighborhood doesn't have to mean allowing Walmart–regulate size and scale rather than use.

• Food trucks are another experiment cities can legalize. They're impermanent: it's easy to do a trial period, and the rules can be changed back if there's a problem. But you'll get valuable feedback on the impacts, as well as the presence or absence of demand. If a truck proves popular, it's made the case for allowing food service businesses in that location on a more permanent basis. (And other kinds of businesses can operate out of a truck too!)

The common thread here: Show people the sky won't fall. Fear of change motivates residents' hesitation about upending zoning regulations that, even if ill-founded in the first place, may have been in place for decades. And fear of backlash motivates elected officials' hesitation to champion the issue.

(Cover photo: a coffee shop in a residential area of Tampa, FL. Photo by Daniel Herriges.)